The hidden benefits of language learning

The immediate benefit of learning a foreign language is obvious: you learn how to understand and to express yourself in a different language and you become able to talk to people who do not speak your native tongue. This might be a choice, for easier travelling for instance, or an obligation in school or for work.

But the advantages of language learning go far beyond simply communicating with others. Among them, you will find that you improve your overall performance in daily life and at work: decision-making, multitasking and creative, divergent thinking are but a few examples of the great asset that speaking two or more languages are for the cognitive process.

1. Decision-making

Research has shown that people working in a foreign language are better at decision-making. A group of psychologists at the University of Chicago wondered if people would make the same decision in a foreign language as they would in their native tongue. The intuitive answer would be ‘yes, of course’. You could even think that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systemic. Yet, the opposite is true.

To demonstrate that using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases, the team of psychologists under the guidance of Boaz Keysar divided a group of native English-speakers who also spoke Japanese into two. Those who were tested in their foreign language (Japanese) made less risky, more balanced and rational choices than those tested in English.

These loss-aversion tests were based on the theory of psychologist and Nobel Prize Winner, Daniel Kahneman, whose 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, posits two general systems of thinking. ‘System 1’ is intuitive and quick, and used by the brain wherever possible in order to minimise effort. ‘System 2’ is deliberative and slow, and better suited for modern-life problems but demands more effort to activate and keep active.

Speaking a foreign language appears to activate System 2 in advance of tackling a tricky problem, heightening deliberation as demonstrated in the experiments. The researchers therefore believe that a second language provides useful cognitive distance from automatic processes and unthinking, emotional reactions (those activated in System 1) in order to promote a more analytical thought (System 2).

  • Foreign languages make you rich

Being able to express yourself in a foreign language will help you land a job and gives you an edge over monolingual candidates in job interviews. It offers more career growth, whether you choose to move abroad or explore international business opportunities. Candidates with foreign languages are offered higher salaries, and the accumulated benefit of the language bonus estimated to result in a very interesting extra sum by the time you retire. But that’s not all.

  • The prospect theory

The positive impact of foreign language skills on decision-making biases, as outlined above, is largely beneficial in relation to financial decisions. Keysar’s team used scenarios proposed by Kahneman – whose 2002 Nobel Prize in economics was awarded for his work on prospect theory – to develop several tests. For instance, Keysar’s team gathered a group of students from the University of Chicago and gave them each $15 USD in $1 bills. Each dollar could be kept or bet on a coin toss. If they lost a toss, they would lose the dollar, if they won, they received the dollar in return and another $1,50 USD. Almost half of the first group just kept the dollars.  

A second group of students spoke Spanish as a second language – unlike the first group, almost three quarters of the students decided to take the bets. Keysar and his colleagues concluded that those who were taking the bets in a foreign language were less affected by the so-called ‘myopic risk aversion’ phenomenon that describes that, rooted in emotional reactions to the idea of loss, the possibility of small losses outweigh the promise of larger gains. By using a second language, the second group of students had more cognitive distance and were therefore able to perceive that the proposition made by Keysar and his team, over multiple bets, is likely to be profitable.

2. Multitasking and focusing

The so-called ‘executive functions’ – which we might think of as being like the ‘CEO of the brain’ – are a set of mental skills that help the brain organise and act on information. Multitasking is one of the things that the executive control system handles. In a study led by researchers at York University in Toronto, monolinguals and bilinguals were put in a driving simulator. Through headphones, they received extra tasks to do – everybody’s driving got worse, but those who spoke more than one language made fewer errors in their driving, as they were able to stay focused.

Multilingual people are constantly ‘juggling’ between two systems of speech, writing and structure, a kind of constant mental exercise. This ability to switch helps them to filter the most essential information at any given time.

For Daniel Goleman, author of 2013’s Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, ‘focus’ is the hidden driver of excellence and ‘attention in all its varieties’ is a mental asset that is critical not only for your career, but also for living a fulfilling live. As he describes, attention connects us with the world. A second (or third, fourth…) language expands the number of people you can talk to, the number of universes you can explore. As you switch from one language to the other, from one system to the other, you train your power to disengage your attention from one thing and move it to another. You become more aware of the world.

3. Creativity

Bilingual individuals have demonstrated great creative skills in different arts. When learning a second language you dig deep into the mechanics, patterns, structures and syntax of the second language and confront them with your own language, thus strengthening your ability for complex thinking and understanding of the relationships between things.

Language determines the way we look at reality, and you will realise that there are different ways to understand our world. Learning a second language helps you to develop new experiences, new thoughts, new visions and new solutions. This form of divergent thinking is assessed, for instance, in the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking which measure a participant’s creative ability. Bilingualism is a great way to experience diversity. And diversity fuels creativity.

Recent studies into the benefits of language learning are less explicit, now acknowledging that the varying ways people use their language have different effects, and taking into account other factors, like context, background, the languages in question, how many foreign languages, and so on. (You can find out more in this 2020 article in The Economist.)

Learning a second language is always beneficial and, with all the apps and the possibility to watch films in VO (version originale – i.e.., in their original language) it has never been easier. Maybe you have transitioned to working from home, as many of us have done. Why not use the time otherwise spent in commuting and meetings to learn a foreign language? You’ll find a way to use it to your advantage.

Antje Vogdt looks at the impact on decision-making, multitasking, creativity and divergent thinking.

Antje Vogdt is a publications and content manager with a passion for travelling and learning languages. She is currently exploring her love for design in all its varieties, and new and traditional ways of publishing, communicating and teaching – digital, on paper and in person.

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